Lock etiquette

To all you narrowboat novices we say, don’t be put off by locks. Locks can look intimidating and you do need to take things slowly and carefully. But here’s the thing: as you exit your first lock, you will have been a little apprehensive together, figured it out together, practised some new skills together and will be talking about it for years to come.

We love the fact that most of our hirers at Union Wharf are novices. We firmly believe that the canals are a better place for having you here.


There is a huge amount of information on how to operate locks on the internet. At the very minimum, before you arrive for your handover at Union Wharf, we do ask that you have read the Boater’s Handbook or watched it on YouTube, which includes information on lock operation.

But we know that many novices are not necessarily nervous about lock operation. Rather, you are worried that you will inadvertently upset other boaters by doing the “wrong thing”.


1. If you know a lock is coming up, drop off a crewmember before you get there to walk on up ahead of the boat. At busy times, there may be a “queue” of narrowboats waiting to use the lock and they can be hard to distinguish from those genuinely moored on the canal bank. The only way to be sure of interpreting the scene correctly, is to walk up to the lock and chat to boaters on the way.

2. It is courteous to check for canal boats which may be approaching from the other direction. If the lock is set in their favour (i.e. empty if they are going up or full if they are going down), allow them to go first.

3. If the lock is wide enough, it is common practice to share with another boat going in the same direction. This conserves water and effort, and can be one of the most enjoyable ways to meet other narrowboaters. You’ll find locks like this to the north of Foxton, heading up towards Leicester.

4. Don’t automatically assume that you should “help” by opening paddles for another boat. Many boaters and crew like to control the speed at which the paddles open, to protect their narrowboat from the inrush of water. By all means offer to open the paddles, but take guidance as to when and how quickly, and don’t be offended if your offer is declined. At Foxton Locks, you’ll often find tourists – children and adults – wanting to help. We suggest you keep control of the windlass and paddles, and let them open the gates for you.

5. Always close the paddles and gates before you leave the lock. The only exception to this rule is if it makes most sense to leave the gates open for a boat which is already approaching.


It’s worth pointing out that boaters are lovely, generous, forgiving folk who will do their best to help if you get into a pickle. Soon you will be counting yourself among them!



We are delighted that more and more narrowboat novices are enjoying the canals around Market Harborough. We are putting together a series of Beginner Guides to help you prepare for your holiday and find a few solutions to common problems en route.

It is also a good idea to familiarise yourself with the Canal and River Trust’s Boaters’ Handbook before you arrive.

We offer all kinds of narrowboats, from Day Boats to Boutique Narrowboats and boats suitable for families. All our hires involve full training and we welcome complete beginners.